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Monday, May 5, 2014

Movie review: Finding Vivian Maier

Posted by on Mon, May 5, 2014 at 4:16 PM

Finding Vivian Maier - COURTESY OF VIVIAN MAIER/MALOOF COLLECTION
  • courtesy of Vivian Maier/Maloof Collection
  • Finding Vivian Maier
Finding Vivian Maier
★★★
Now playing


Several years ago in Chicago, John Maloof—a scavenger of storage units, forager of flea markets and troller of auctions—bid $380 on Bin No. 39. It contained hundreds of negatives shot by then-unknown street photographer Vivian Maier, an intensely private eccentric who earned a living as a nanny.

More sleuth work led Maloof, who, with Charlie Siskel, directed this film, to a storage locker owned by one of Maier’s former charges. There he found 100,000 negatives, 2,000 rolls of undeveloped black-and-white film and 700 rolls of color. He also found teeth, hats, papers, coats, blouses, uncashed income tax checks, receipts: the detritus that, in total, makes up a life.

Now Maier, once relegated to obscurity, is among the most-sought after artists in American photography.

Maloof’s documentary Finding Vivian Maier showcases her work—much of it stunning, and, to be expected, some of it in need of an editor—but also dips into her mystery. She died in 2009 at age 83, so she cannot answer the many questions we have: Who were you? Why were you estranged from your family? What motivated you? What were your ambitions and hopes for your work?

Maloof can’t answer these questions either, nor can the people he interviews: a long-lost cousin, children who remember Maier as their nanny, even talk show host Phil Donahue, who hired her to care for his four sons.

Pictures tell us not only about their subjects; they also inform us about the photographer. So the best way to assess Maier is through her work, both photos and the 8mm and 16mm films she made. Her prolific output indicates a woman infinitely curious about the world—someone for whom the most quotidian occurrences contained meaning.

She seems to have been most comfortable with children, who confront her camera with honesty and a lack of pretense. Yet she could be unflinching in her shots of accident victims, and those photos betray a cool emotional detachment. One of the children she cared for recalls an incident in which he had been hit by a car (he wasn’t badly injured), and Maier appeared—with her camera, shooting photos of the scene.

Maier, who is portrayed in the film as severe, at least with her fellow adults, nonetheless had an appreciation for humor and the absurd. Her instinct drew her to things and people that were broken; her eye sought out creative juxtapositions of form and content. And her reflexes enabled her to capture them.

“In her is a quality of human understanding and warmth,” says acclaimed street photographer Joel Meyerowitz.

“She had a great eye, a great sense of framing, humor and tragedy,” adds Mary Ellen Mark, famous for her photojournalism and portraiture. “A sense of life and environment. She had it all.”

Other journalists have criticized the documentary for invading Meier’s privacy. She was, by all accounts, a very private person, and we cannot know her wishes about how her work should be publicized, if at all.

However, she spent her entire adulthood intruding in the privacy of others, albeit in public spaces. That’s what street photographers do; they are legal voyeurs. Maier even used a Rolleiflex, a medium-format camera. Instead of holding the camera to the eye, the photographer looks down into the viewfinder to focus on and shoot subjects—who likely don’t know that their picture is being taken. Now the lens has been turned on her.

My issue with the film was that it seemed at times that the interviewees—and, to an extent, Maloof—were poking fun at Maier’s eccentricities, her fashion sense (she preferred men’s shirts because they were better-tailored than women’s; I agree), her behavioral tics.

She was an unmarried nonconformist—a "spinster," someone calls her, using an antiquated and offensive word—who traveled the world alone. She did this in the mid-20th century, when women were expected to hew to narrow gender roles and to sacrifice their own ambitions for a husband and children.

A man who led Maier’s life would have been lauded as a sophisticated jet-setter, an artist in search of his muse. Instead, Maier is portrayed as damaged.

That said, the documentary is largely enjoyable—Maier’s photographs are brilliant and the story is intriguing. But in effect, we get a filmic version of a Polaroid picture before it’s fully developed. Instead of thinking we can solve the mystery through speculation, perhaps we should just let the mystery be. 
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    John Maloof’s intriguing documentary isn’t always kind to its subject, secret street photographer Vivian Maier

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Friday, May 2, 2014

Movie review: The Amazing Spider-Man 2

Posted by on Fri, May 2, 2014 at 10:20 AM

20140319151353_The_Amazing_Spiderman_2_poster.jpg
The Amazing Spider-Man 2

Opening today


That faint cheering sound you hear during The Amazing Spider-Man 2 isn’t coming from excited audiences. Instead, it’s echoing from the offices of DC Comics as their execs realize there may be a chink in the armor of Marvel’s movie universe.

While the screenplay for director Marc Webb’s previous Spider-Man reboot was ploddingly pedestrian and ridden with plot holes, it was preferable to this insipid, insufferable script by Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci (check their writing credits for the ugly details).

On the occasion of their high school graduation, Peter Parker (Andrew Garfield) and Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone) just can’t seem to figure out their relationship. With the apparition of Gwen’s dead dad (Denis Leary) appearing at irregular intervals to leer at Peter, he and Gwen break up and reconcile—without much logical explanation—three or four times over the film’s 142 minute span. Their scenes together are spent exchanging cute nothings more befitting of Dawson’s Creek.

While Peter and Gwen are busy channeling Pacey and Joey, Webb provides an unfortunate approximation of director Joel Schumacher. While the comic book Peter Parker is a renowned wiseacre, the incessant nattering every time Garfield's Spidey dons his mask feels forced and foolish.

More trouble comes in the form of Max Dillon (Jamie Foxx), the sort of super-smart, maladjusted hero-worshiper who usually becomes an arch-villain—most recently, think Aldrich Killian in Iron Man 3; more satirically, think Buddy Pine in The Incredibles. Thanks to the most outlandish origin story this side of Poison Ivy in Schumacher’s Batman & Robin, Dillon falls into a tank of mutated electric eels and emerges as the power-absorbing/shooting Electro.

Meanwhile, Peter’s old friend Harry Osborn (Dane DeHaan) returns—apparently from a Bernardo Bertolucci set, judging by his manner and appearance—to bury his decrepit father Norman (Chris Cooper) and discover he’s inherited dad’s deadly genetic disease. Despite the fact that young Harry has a billion-dollar multinational corporation devoted to scientific research at his disposal, he decides that his lone lease on life resides in injecting himself with Spider-Man’s blood.

When Spidey refuses to donate—for reasons that are never elucidated or, frankly, justified in the moment—Harry springs Electro from the asylum where he was being probed by a German cliché actually named “Dr. Kafka.” Harry and Electro join forces to cure Harry and vanquish their enemies, chiefly Spider-Man.

As if this tangled storyline needs any more confusion, Peter is still trying to solve the mystery of his own father’s vanishing. In one of the film’s more ludicrous scenes, an agonized Peter assembles a wall-sized arrow diagram designed to divine the contents of his father’s old leather satchel—a chart that for some reason incorporates snapshots of Gwen and a mosaic of Franklin Roosevelt.

While it’s not enough to salvage the silliness, the film’s CGI visual effects are seamless and eye-popping, particularly Spidey’s web-slinging and Electro’s power-flinging. Unfortunately, it's all set to the head-throbbing strains of a soundtrack by concocted by Hans Zimmer, Pharrell Williams and several rock guitarists. It makes Zimmer’s Steve Jablonsky's Transformers scores sound melodious by comparison.

There’s a shocking, emotional gut-punch late in the film that nearly redeems the storyline. However, it’s immediately undercut by a corny coda that seems inspired by the last scene in The Incredibles—and the bad PR generated when Garfield purportedly backed out of an appearance with Batkid at the Oscars.

Indeed, any reference to prior film parodies—both intentional and otherwise—is apt, as The Amazing Spider-Man 2 resembles a mass-produced, synthetic superhero movie full of tropes and little else. Moreover, it compares woefully to Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 2, the best Spidey movie to date, released just 10 years ago. The shame is that Garfield and Stone are a far better onscreen duo than Tobey Maguire and Kirsten Dunst.

The film surrounding them, however, is anything but amazing.
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    A (web) swing and a miss in Marvel’s latest effort to reboot its Spider-Man film franchise

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Monday, April 14, 2014

Movie review: Oculus

Posted by on Mon, Apr 14, 2014 at 5:30 PM

Oculus - PHOTO BY JOHN ESTES / LASSER PRODUCTIONS
  • photo by John Estes / Lasser Productions
  • Oculus
Oculus

Now playing


Every year, without fail, there’s at least one major horror release that receives a little too much love from the critics. To be one of these over-heralded films, you need a strong female lead, a masked killer and a script reminiscent of ’80s slasher flicks, but only in a self-aware way.

This year’s winner is Oculus. The film has gotten an incredible amount of prerelease buzz, and while it does offer some outstanding performances, an unsteady guiding hand crushes its momentum.

Oculus opens with 21-year-old Tim Russell (Brenton Thwaites) being released from a mental health facility, where he has been since the tragic deaths of his parents. Held responsible for their murders, Tim is reunited with the only person that truly believes his innocence: his older sister Kaylie (Dr. Who’s Karen Gillan).

Ready to move on with his life, Tim has accepted his role in the deaths; Kaylie, however, has a different agenda. Having waited several years for Tim’s release, she wants to confront what she believes to be the true murderer of her parents: a supernatural entity in an antique mirror that hung in her father’s home office. Having acquired both the mirror and the house, Kaylie is ready for revenge.

It’s always a pleasure to see an actor knocking a role out of the park, and the highlight of Oculus is Rory Cochrane’s portrayal of doomed family patriarch Alan Russell. Cochrane, now and forever known as Slater in Dazed and Confused, delivers one of the finest performances of the year so far as a loving husband and father whose relationship with his family slowly deteriorates into torture and murder. Cochrane’s portrayal of quiet evil is unnerving, and it reminds us of the inhumanity that occurs every day in “safe” neighborhoods.

Unfortunately, Cochrane’s performance is the only one able to make it through this production unharmed by the bumbling of an inexperienced filmmaker. This is writer/director Mike Flanagan’s first major credit, and while a better director might have stunned filmgoers with the movie’s premise, instead we leave stunned by the ineptness on display. Flanagan was clearly inspired by The Shining, and film geeks can now see what Kubrick’s adaptation of Stephen King’s novel might have looked like in lesser hands. It isn’t pretty.

Flanagan’s missteps are numerous, but Oculus has the potential to be a great what-could-have-been film for years to come. For Gillan’s portrayal of a tortured woman—perhaps the victim of untreated mental trauma from the horrors she witnessed as a youth—the director calls on the actress to play the character as just slightly more subtle than an asylum patient in a 1920s silent comedy.

But the film is really done in by the clumsy overuse of flashbacks, which come so fast and furious that it’s impossible to understand what’s happening at some points. There are some scenes that can be interpreted in about four different ways, without even taking into account whatever the spooky mirror is doing at the time.

Oculus is the rare movie that’s terrible without being an embarrassment for the actors. It’s clear that the performers did the best they could with the materials given to them. That said, the term “director jail” exists for a reason, and Flanagan should be shown to his cell immediately.

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    Some strong performances can’t redeem the inept direction of this supernatural horror dud

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Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Triangle-related films at the RiverRun International Film Festival in Winston-Salem

Posted by on Wed, Apr 2, 2014 at 6:42 PM

2_Kid_Guitar.jpeg
As Durham prepares for the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival (starting tomorrow—check out the INDY’s preview package), Winston-Salem is getting ready for an ambitious film festival of its own. The 16th annual RiverRun International Film Festival  which attracts thousands of cinema fans each year, showcases features and shorts from all genres of independent film and from all over the world—plus industry guests, this year including Oscar-nominated Winter’s Bone director Debra Granik.

Running from April 4th to April 13th, this year’s festival includes some productions with strong Triangle ties. Today, we’re reviewing three, all documentaries, that we saw.

Mipso in Japan is a 16-minute documentary short that follows the young, Chapel Hill-based pop-bluegrass band to Japan on their first major tour outside their comfort zone. While you’ll hear snippets of songs here and there, the majority of the film focuses on the band’s awkward interactions with Japanese fans and home video-style scenes of them enjoying such local activities as a Japanese bathhouse. If you’re a fan or relative of the band, you’ll probably love it, but for a general audience, there isn’t too much to see here.

Mipso in Japan - Trailer from Jon Kasbe on Vimeo.

If You Build It, which is also screening at Full Frame, is the tale of two volunteers battling small town school boards and shrinking budgets in their efforts to expand students’ minds with experimental curricula at a high school in rural Bertie County, North Carolina. Bertie is one of the poorest counties in our state, and the fight between young activists and a board that is swayed only by grant money illustrates the melancholy that can envelop an area when the brightest young minds abandon their hometowns. Director Patrick Creadon (who was the cinematographer of Wordplay) continues to impress with this full-length documentary, which features several narrative twists and turns along its 85-minute running time.



It’s Monday and the South is Rising
, a 20-minute documentary from director Jonathan Michels, highlights the Moral Monday protests at the General Assembly this past summer. Michels impresses with his directorial debut, and scenes of peaceful protesters being led away in zip-tied handcuffs will shock you—unless you're a resident of the Triangle, where, sadly, we’ve been living through these shameful events for months. But it’s a valuable primer for the rest of the country, which probably hasn't followed the action as closely as it unfolded.

"It's Monday and the South is rising" from Jonathan Michels on Vimeo.


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    Brief reviews of Mipso in Japan, If You Build It and It’s Monday and the South is Rising

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Friday, March 21, 2014

Film review: Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me

Posted by on Fri, Mar 21, 2014 at 5:58 PM

Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me. Courtesy of Smart Broad Films.
  • Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me. Courtesy of Smart Broad Films.
Man, Elaine Stritch sure is a handful.

Feisty, foul-mouthed and ferocious, Stritch is incapable of turning it down a notch. A Broadway legend, she's perhaps most famous to the general public for her role as Jack Doanghy's caustic mother on 30 Rock. Even though she’s a legendary pain in the ass, the stage and screen veteran is beloved, as evidenced in the new documentary Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me.

Friends and colleagues admire the hell out of her, of course. Before he left this mortal coil, James Gandolfini was filmed professing his love for Stritch, pointing out that if they were both younger, they probably would’ve had a torrid love affair that ended badly.

And she has plenty of fans outside showbiz. Walking through the streets of New York City in a fuzzy fur coat, gigantic Swifty Lazar glasses and no pants, Stritch could easily be mistaken for a crazy bag lady if not for the passersby telling her how much they enjoy her work.

She loves her work, too. Approaching age 87 literally kicking and screaming, Stritch prepares for her latest nightclub act, which has her performing the songs of Stephen Sondheim. But since she’s getting up there in years—not to mention that she has often-debilitating diabetes and an ongoing struggle with alcoholism—the words to “I Feel Pretty” don’t flow as easily as they used to.

Director Chiemi Karasawa hits all the bullet points of Stritch’s life and career, but she’s most intrigued by her subject's current state of mind, now that she may not be able to whoop it up on stage for much longer. Much like Stritch herself, the movie is unfiltered in its view of a gal in her golden years. Her diabetic attacks, which can make the outspoken performer unable to speak, are even more uncomfortable to witness than her loud rehearsal meltdowns.

But even when she needs help getting on stage or remembering the next line in a tune, Stritch soldiers on. Ultimately, Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me makes you root for her even when you’ve had your fill of her.

Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me
★★★
Now playing at the Carolina Theatre, the Chelsea Theater and the Raleigh Grande 

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    Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me is an adoring portrait of a legendary pain in the ass

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Thursday, March 20, 2014

Film review in brief: Divergent

Posted by on Thu, Mar 20, 2014 at 2:11 PM

Shailene Woodley in Divergent - JAAP BUITENDIJK
  • Jaap Buitendijk
  • Shailene Woodley in Divergent
Divergent
★★★
Opening March 21


Divergent takes place in a dystopian Chicago, years after the fall of civilization. Society has broken up into five different factions. Roughly, these groups consist of charity workers, hippie farmers, intellectuals, lawyers and the military. On her sixteenth birthday, Beatrice Prior (The Descendants’ Shailene Woodley) chooses to leave her family and join the militaristic Dauntless. It isn’t long into her training before her mentor, Four (an impressive Theo James), figures out that Beatrice is “divergent”—someone considered too dangerous to live because they have traits from all five clans. Soon, Beatrice must combat a conspiracy within the city’s walls while simultaneously attempting to hide her true powers. Though too long at 139 minutes, the film is sure to be a hit with the young-adult crowd. 
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    Divergent is sure to be a hit with the young-adult crowd

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Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Film review: Veronica Mars

Posted by on Wed, Mar 19, 2014 at 2:52 PM

courtesy of Warner Bros. - KRISTIN BELL AS VERONICA MARS
  • Kristin Bell as Veronica Mars
  • courtesy of Warner Bros.
Veronica Mars
★★★

The story of the Kickstarter campaign that propelled Veronica Mars into movie theaters is hardly a secret. Over 91,000 “Marshmallows,” as the TV-show-turned-movie’s dedicated fans call themselves, chipped in for the chance to see their favorite character and her besties once more. Those fans turned out in force on Saturday at AMC Southpoint 17, the only area theater to show to film, lining up early for a matinee in their bright Kickstarter-funded t-shirts.

Veronica Mars, created by Rob Thomas and starring Kristen Bell, lasted for only three short seasons on television. Veronica was one of the cool kids at Neptune High. But when her best friend was murdered, her sheriff father’s pursuit of the town’s elite made her a pariah, to the point where she was vindictively date-raped at a party. Voted out of office, Keith Mars opened his own private detective agency, and Veronica pitched in to help solve two crimes in which she was intimately involved. The show had an appealing film-noir look and snarky first-person narration that spoke to teen outcasts and classic crime-thriller aficionados alike.

Brought to the big screen on an ultra-low budget by Hollywood standards ($5 million, plus marketing funds from Warner Bros.), the movie, unfortunately, looks like a TV show. The picture was dim and the sound was low, forcing the audience to strain to hear the dialogue over Aaron Paul’s revving engines in the adjacent theater, though it’s unclear whether this was an issue with the film’s production or the theater’s presentation. But that didn’t dampen the enthusiasm of the audience, who thrilled to every in-joke and cameo appearance.

Although there’s a series recap for new viewers at the beginning (leaving out the date rape, which fueled so much of Veronica’s rage), the film is certainly most enjoyable if you’re up to speed on all the minor characters and plot twists. The audience’s main disappointment seemed to be that it was too short: They would have gladly binged on another 13-hour season right there in the theater. In the TV series, digressions and character moments were key to the cult appeal, but this is straightforward solve-the-murder plotting, with no dog-nappings or other minor mysteries.

But what does it mean to say that Veronica Mars is “for the fans?” Doesn’t that have a whiff of sexist condescension, when one fan-friendly comic book movie after another is green-lighted without the aid of crowdfunding? Because Veronica Mars’ fans are largely female, are they are less deserving of another chapter in their idol’s story? The film is satisfying for the fans, with virtually all the characters returning and even more brooding looks from Veronica’s bad-boy ex, Logan Echolls, played by Jason Dohring. (Never mind that ridiculous military-enlistment subplot.)

It’s a solid three-or-more star entertainment for the Marshmallows, though is perhaps of limited interest to anyone else. But who’s to judge which niche audience is deserving of its pleasures? 
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    The crowdfunded Veronica Mars movie is satisfying for “Marshmallows”—but what about everyone else?

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Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Durham filmmakers seek funds to finish documentary on tennis legend Althea Gibson

Posted by on Wed, Mar 5, 2014 at 4:27 PM

Althea Gibson - PHOTO COURTESY OF THE FILMMAKERS
  • photo courtesy of the filmmakers
  • Althea Gibson
Award-winning Durham filmmakers Rex Miller and Elisabeth Haviland James are almost ready for moviegoers to see their new documentary, Althea, which is about legendary African-American athlete Althea Gibson. They just need to finish paying for it. 

“I like to tell people we could basically show it tomorrow, that the story and editing are all set,” says Miller, who served as director, producer and director of photography on the film. He and James had to turn down an offer to screen the film at Durham's Full Frame Documentary Film Festival because of rights issues.

"It was a painful decision not to screen the film at Full Frame; it is our hometown festival, and we have both had wonderful experiences there with past projects," says James, the film's producer and editor. "But it was the responsible choice we had to make to protect the stability of the project moving forward." The filmmakers have to pay for archival material—$75,000 for 450 photographs and dozens of video clips from the likes of Getty Images and the Associated Press, newly unearthed images of black tennis players by Gordon Parks, and other materials.

"We feel that’s what makes the film really strong, and we need to get the funds to license that material," Miller says. To pay for the rights and finish what James calls a "visual spit 'n' polish," the filmmakers have started an Indiegogo campaign to raise $30,000, which as of March 5 had raised more than $7,000 of its goal.

Gibson, who was born in Clarendon County, S.C., was the first black athlete to win such tennis championships as the U.S. Nationals, the French Open and Wimbledon. She was also the first black female professional golfer, and had a career that extended into track, basketball and even performing, as a singer and actress alongside John Wayne in the John Ford film The Horse Soldiers.

Her life was not always easy, though. In addition to the racism of the mid-20th century, Gibson came into conflict with what Miller calls "the black upper class" as she distanced herself from the burgeoning civil rights movement. "She didn't want to be a black tennis player," Miller says. "She wanted to compete."

"She was very complex—on the one hand wanting very much to be a part of society, while shunning some aspects of it that would have made her more widely accepted," adds James. "She wanted to make her point not by making speeches, but by beating all her opponents. Her story is very powerful and touching. Whether you’re a tennis player or not, or aware of our unique civil rights story or not, you’re going to find something to connect to in this. It’s gotten a very emotional response from everyone who’s seen it."

The film has been a passion project for Miller, whose father was a tennis coach and whose mother played tennis locally, with her prized possession being a photo of her with Gibson after playing a match. "That photo hung on my bedroom wall as a kid," Miller says. He's worked on the film for about five years, though James says he's been "working on it in his mind" for decades.

James feels that Althea is an appropriate follow-up to the Emmy- and Peabody-winning documentary she produced and edited, The Loving Story, which told the story of an interracial Virginia couple who fought for the legality of their marriage. "I was already so immersed in that era and its challenges," she says.

The filmmakers have raised $250,000 to produce the film over about six years, mostly from tennis players, and will screen part of the film at a local fundraiser on March 26. "We want to keep this a truly independent production, outside of the studios," James says. Miller has formed partnerships with such tennis organizations as the USTA, NYJTL and DOCTA to ensure that the finished project will be shown in educational and grassroots settings to help educate and inspire young athletes.

"It’s important that young people in tennis today get to see this story," James says. "We want to make sure the audience that has the most to benefit gets a chance to experience it and learn from it." 

The fundraiser for Althea is at 6 p.m. on Wednesday., March 26, at 1218 Vickers Street, with a suggested donation of $500. Contact biz@thornapplefilms.com for more information. The Indiegogo campaign runs through April 4.


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    Althea Gibson was the first black athlete to cross the color line of professional tennis

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Monday, March 3, 2014

Neal Bell on In Secret, a new film adaptation of his stage play

Posted by on Mon, Mar 3, 2014 at 11:18 AM

In Secret - PHOTO BY PHIL BRAY
  • photo by Phil Bray
  • In Secret
After its professional New York premiere, it took almost 17 years for Neal Bell’s stage play Thérèse Raquin to make it to the big screen in the form of the recently-released In Secret, directed by Charlie Stratton and starring Elizabeth Olsen and Oscar Isaac. But for Bell, the result was worth the wait.

“It’s exciting and strange,” says Bell, a professor of theater studies at Duke University. “I hadn’t seen the movie until it opened, so I didn’t know what to expect. But I was really surprised and delighted to see that it came out so well.” The film came about after Stratton directed Bell’s play for a Los Angeles production. Stratton was impressed enough with the material that he set about bringing it to the screen.

“He spent the next 15 or so years trying to put it together and then losing his actors or his funding,” Bell says. “There were all kinds of different people attached. Glenn Close was interested at one point; I think Gerard Butler was interested. And then, about two summers ago, he called me to say he’d gotten the funding, and the actors had come together at the same moment!” Bell has nothing but praise for Stratton, whom he calls “an incredibly honorable and decent guy, along with very, very talented.”

Bell’s play, an adaptation of Émile Zola’s classic novel, has an odd history of its own. He originally wrote it as the libretto for a proposed musical called The Wild Party by Michael John LaChiusa. “He wrote what I thought was an incredibly beautiful score, but decided he wasn’t satisfied with his work,” Bell says. “I had this orphaned libretto, and a young guy at NYU asked me if he could direct it as a senior distinction play, so I turned it back into a straight play. It got picked up by regional theaters and went on from there.”

Bell credits the play’s long run and eventual film adaptation to Zola’s original story. “It had an influence on film noir,” he says of Zola’s novel. “The Postman Always Rings Twice is almost a literal adaptation of it. It fascinated me because of how it tells the tale of what happens after the lovers commit murder and get away with it.”

Though his involvement in the production of In Secret was limited, Bell has an extensive background writing for television, including a stint under fellow Duke professor Michael Malone at daytime soap One Life to Live. Bell currently teaches a course on TV writing at Duke, where his students watch the one-season classic My So-Called Life and then plot out episodes for the second season that never was.

“I feel like we’re in the middle of a second golden age of television,” Bell says, “and that the long-form writing being done for it is as good as any playwriting that’s being done in New York right now.”

He’s remaining true to his theater roots, most recently with an adaptation of G.K. Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday at Little Green Pig. Still, he admits that the film of In Secret has given him some new credibility with certain people, thanks to Harry Potter co-star Tom Felton’s presence. “If I’m talking to a younger person,” he says, “that’s generally what I lead with.”
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    The Duke professor's play Thérèse Raquin is based on Émile Zola’s classic novel

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Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Oscar-nominated short documentaries screening at the Carolina

Posted by on Wed, Jan 29, 2014 at 4:37 PM

Karama Has No Walls - COURTESY OF MAGNOLIA PICTURES
  • courtesy of Magnolia Pictures
  • Karama Has No Walls
The Carolina Theatre in Durham is offering area film enthusiasts the opportunity to actually know what they’re talking about when the winner for Best Documentary Short is announced at this year’s Academy Awards ceremony. Broken into two programs, the nominated films offer stunning subjects, each inspiring in its own way. (For reviews of the the live-action and animated nominees, click here.)

Program A contains three films, kicking off with Facing Fear. Matthew Boger was a young gay teen hustling on the streets of Los Angeles 25 years ago when he was the victim of a horrible hate crime. By chance, he meets the main perpetrator decades later, and the two discuss the motivating factors that led to that fateful night. This is truly one of the great documentaries of 2013.

The second film on the program is Karama Has No Walls. In the February of 2011, citizens in Yemen’s capital city of Sana’a assemble peacefully to call for an end to President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s 33-year reign. They’re met by a security force armed with machine guns, and violence quickly breaks out. The film is narrated, in part, by the two young cameramen who manage to capture the footage, somehow filming the chaos for posterity while dodging sniper fire. It’s a harrowing piece of filmmaking.

Program A wraps up with The Lady in Number 6: Music Saved My Life, the story of Alice Herz-Sommer, the world’s oldest Holocaust survivor at 109 years old. Recounting her ordeal in the concentration camps, Herz-Sommer is sometimes more interested in telling us about her love for music than her tales of life behind the fences. If it wasn’t for the subject’s age, this would be a story we’ve heard told better many times before.

Program B features only two films due to the running length of the first entry, Prison Terminal: The Last Days of Private Jack Hall. Hall, once a respected WWII hero, now serves a life sentence for murder in the Iowa State Penitentiary. The film chronicles the final days of his life as he slowly succumbs to myriad ailments. Nearly 20 percent of the U.S. prison population is elderly, and this is an astonishing look behind bars at the lonely lives those folks lead.

The second chapter in Program B is Cavedigger. Ra Paulette has been excavating caves in New Mexico for 25 years, and this film shows the struggles he faces in his life’s work as well as the beauty he will leave behind one day. Filmed, at times, as if it were a failed pilot for a basic cable reality show, this is the weakest entry of the five.
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    Brief reviews of Facing Fear, Karama Has No Walls, The Lady in Number 6: Music Saved My Life and more

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